I am a competitive runner. And as anyone who’s ever run with me can attest, I don’t like to lose. However, I also know that to improve at anything, I need to compete with people who are better than I am. Winning is good. But losing is better.
I vividly recall my very first indoor track meet. It was at Gettysburg College in 1978 and I was scheduled to run the mile. If you’ve never raced an indoor mile, it is a different beast than a road mile or even an outdoor track mile. And yes, in 1978 we still raced the MILE, not that silly 1600 meter thing that they do nowadays.
The race was 11 laps, and I led for the first four. And then, someone handed me a piano and I struggled home, finishing last in 6:12. Last place… a far cry from first place and a humbling of the Nth degree. Afterwards, my coach Jere the Bear came up to me and said, “You may have won the race had I entered you in a slower heat.” What? You mean I could have actually WON? Maybe, but he wanted me to compete with faster runners. Two runners in that race went onto huge national and international careers. It wasn’t the last time I’d lose to either of them.
As I have said to many a runner, “It is better to be last of the fast than it is to be first of the worst.” That’s not a knock against those running slower times, but to be competitive, out-running people who are not as quick as you may be has little impact improving anything but your ego. If you want to be competitive, you need to race against similar and even faster runners.
Now before you think I am being a speed snob, please note that the operative wording here is “competitive runner.” Ninety percent of the runners I know and with whom I train have no desire to compete with anyone but themselves. And to that end they are successful. Improving your personal best in the mile to the marathon is a tremendous aim. If your aim is to finish, all the more better. The running goals of others are no less lofty than mine or anyone else who enters a race and pins on a number.
One of the aforementioned runners from my indoor mile experience is a guy named Steve Spence. I chased Steve for four years in high school (we were in the same conference) and, much to my dismay, four more years in college (again, same conference – he at Shippensburg and me at Lock Haven U.). I never beat him, but I never gave up trying to close that gap, either. I once told him that I’d forgotten what the front of him looked like. He smiled. At age 50, Steve can still break a 5:00 mile. Last year I ran a 5:06 mile at age 49. Close – but still not there.
Competitive racing is about competing against yourself AND the best runners you can find. At a recent 5k in Wilmington, I was fortunate enough to cross the line first. Second place was a good 90 seconds or so behind me (that was BEFORE they took a wrong turn with a quarter mile to go). I ran a decent race but at no time did I feel competitive. Again, I am not disparaging those behind me, but rather wanting to find events where I can be pressed more to race, to improve and to feed that competitive side.
If it sounds like I’m advocating losing, well yes, yes I am, but in the right context. Whether your race is against yourself or others, if you put in the training and the best effort you can and come up short, you have waged a competitive effort. Losing may be better than winning if it propels you forward to make the attempt again and again and again. In every loss, there is a victory.
Former Lock Haven University stand-out runner Andrew Shearer is the Middletown Athletic Club secretary/treasurer.